Elephant skin is tough, but it can be broken.
That's the bloody lesson that Billie, an elephant recovering from decades of abuse, learned repeatedly in her years with the circus. Billie's journey — from India to an American circus to captivity to sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. — is recounted in a new book, "Last Chain for Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top."
The book's author, Carol Bradley, visited Nashville this weekend.
"She reminds us every day what circus elephants endure," she said.
Trainers teach elephants to do complicated tricks and stunts that can be damaging to their bodies, Bradley said. The process sometimes involves brutal beatings, as in the case of Billie, who was beaten repeatedly for more than 20 years. Beatings typically involve a bull hook, a metal instrument that resembles a fireplace poker.
Bradley said one of Billie's most severe beatings came in a restraint chute — where trainers attend to the elephants — leaving Billie terrified of the structure.
"Even if the door to one was swung open she would rip it apart," Bradley said.
Episodes like those show that her scars are more than physical and that there might be some truth in the cliche: elephants never forget.
But violent reactions like those can get elephants taken out of the circus game. Once, after Billie lashed out at a trainer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered her removed from the famous traveling group the Hawthorn Five and taken off the road, Bradley said.
But things did not get better for Billie. She spent 11 years in a 20-by-20-foot stall in a Hawthorn Corp. barn in Illinois, Bradley said. The barn was usually dark, and Billie had little interaction with other elephants, especially difficult for the typically social animals.
Hawthorn officials consistently denied abusing elephants, but in a 2004 agreement the company agreed to pay a $200,000 civil penalty and relinquish its elephants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In February 2006, Billie became the 21st resident of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the nation's largest natural habitat refuge for endangered African and Asian elephants. There she receives food and medical care and roams the 2,700-acre property with other elephants.
Bradley wants her book to educate people about the treatment of circus elephants and said the real change will come when people boycott animal performances in circuses.
"I really think the lives of circus elephants are pretty wretched," she said. "They live almost all their lives in chains. They travel across the country almost nonstop in the back of a tractor-trailer or in a rail car. It is a completely unnatural life."
Billie is now in quarantine fighting tuberculosis, but she has been through worse and will be done with treatment by the end of the year, sanctuary spokesperson Mary Beth Ikard said. She said the animal is healing and that her attitude has improved significantly.
Given what Billie has been through, Bradley said, that's amazing. She said Scott Blais, one of the co-founders of the sanctuary at Hohenwald, told her that everyone there had been inspired.
"I'm really struck by her resilience," she said. "One of the things that Scott really admired about Billie was that where some elephants sort of caved to the system, Billie never seemed to accept that. She kind of stayed true to herself."
Reach Casey Harper at 615-259-8085 and on Twitter @CaseyHarper33.
1962: Born in India
1966: Brought to U.S. zoo
1972: Begins traveling with circus
1995: Confined to small, dark stall with little interaction
2006: Rescued and sent to elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Mary Beth Ikard and had incorrect timeline for Billie.